The country of Belarus sits nestled between Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine. Its capital, Minsk, is located in the north-central portion of the nation, situated alongside the Svislach and Nyamiha Rivers. The Nyamiha was once a powerful river, but due to an urban containment project in the mid-20th Century, the majority of its water is now diverted into a pipe system. The city itself has centuries of history, dating back to its association with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the late 13th Century, and formally becoming a town in 1499. For several centuries, the town was governed by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, an expansive territory of 400,000 square miles and 11 million inhabitants between the 16th and 17th Centuries. Even though it was ruled by a monarch, the political system was ahead of its time being that it relied on a strict system of checks and balances from a nobility-elected legislature. The next several centuries were marked by contention for the region with the Russians, and its leadership saw several exchanges of power. Belarus did not gain its sovereignty until 1990.
During the Soviet war in Afghanistan which took place primarily in the 1980’s, the natives of what eventually became Belarus played a huge part. Contributing some 30,000 troops to the efforts, 771 Belarusians fell during the nine year war. In 1991, the Minsk city government started the planning stages for a memorial to commemorate those who fought and lost their lives in battle, that eventually became the Island of Courage and Sorrow, and is commonly referred to as the Island of Tears by the locals. There sits a beautiful monument depicting statues of mourning women who are said to be the mothers of the men lost in battle. There is also a guardian angel that is said to represent the Afghans who lost their lives in the struggle for their homeland. Situated on Trinity Hill, the oldest surviving district in Minsk, the area was named for the Trinity Convent which no longer exists. The first Roman Catholic Church in Minsk also formally resided there, but it and another prominent monastery are now forgone relics of the past.
Gorbachev introduced the idea of “Glasnost” in the late 1980’s, essentially it was a call for openness and transparency in government institutions. Commonly paired with “Perestroika,” or restructuring, these terms were supposed to be the direction the new Russia would take. And while Belarus gained its independence, it still tries to abide by these philosophies. Though there have been some setbacks since its inception, including an economic crisis in the 1990’s, now that the city has reached its 950th anniversary, it continues to make pace for becoming a place for tomorrow. As the region around it develops on the world-stage, the people of Minsk will hold true to the motto engraved on the monument at the Island of Tears: “This Temple and Memorial was erected to the Sons who died in Afghanistan on the instruction of Belarusian mothers who want no evil to reign in their native land or in any other land.”
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